The Honey Bee Goes Buzz, But That Ain’t All He Does
Spring is one of my favorite seasons; bees are buzzing, birds are chirping, and fragrant flowers are blooming everywhere you look. However, much like the Bee Movie’s depiction of a world sans bee activity, Spring could soon be a quiet, colorless extension of winter.
I’m being dramatic, of course, but you get the picture. A world without bees, birds, and a vast array of other organisms could be highly problematic for the human race and its many global cohabitants.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, honey bees, moths — the list goes on and on. While all of the animals included on this list are worthy of appreciation for many incredible and unique reasons, they are particularly noteworthy because of the roles they play in plant pollination.
Pollination is a key process in the life cycle of a plant — without it, no reproduction would occur, effectively pushing that species to extinction. Some plant species are able to harness abiotic factors like wind or water to do the dirty work of transferring pollen between members of the population, however, some plants have developed a mutualistic dependence on biotic cohorts. A vast majority of the flowering plants found on earth depend on an animal of some kind to contribute to their reproductive cycle.
These plants that require a biotic partner do so in a mutualistic fashion, offering an incentive to the other organism to ensure their dependent reproductive success. One of the most notable attractants for plant pollinators is nectar — a liquid produced by most flowering plants which provides energy and nutrients to organisms which consume it.
Floral structures are sneaky and extremely intelligent in their design. Oftentimes, they are arranged in ways that force pollinators to come into contact with the sexual structures of the flower while obtaining the nectar. Other attributes like petal color and markings act as visual guides for pollinators, almost like the people who wave those light sticks around on runways to make sure the planes (in this case bees, etc.) follow their designated path (to pollination).
When discussing the topic of pollinators, it is inevitable to bring up the “save the bees” movement that skyrocketed in popularity a few years back and had animal and earth lovers alike itching to take action.
But why the big fuss, you ask? The issue of diminishing bee populations deserves one of the biggest fusses ever made, actually, because of how crucial these organisms are to our current quality of life, as well as the potential trajectory of our quality of life.
Bees are much more than occasionally irritating, sometimes dangerous insects that die when they sting a person — (side note, what kind of supernatural power would give an animal that plays such a vital part in maintaining global harmony an Achille’s heel that is struck during the act of self-preservation? Makes no sense.) they are one of the most important pollinators on the planet.
These insects have unknowingly taken on one of the planet’s highest priority jobs simply because it is their instinct to produce honey, and in turn support their hive and continue their lineage. Honey bees in particular pollinate a large portion of flowering plants that are not necessarily main food crops, but whose fruit, nut, or vegetable products are still prevalent in human consumption; they perform about 80 percent of all plant pollination worldwide.
As it has come to be expected, though, a plethora of human-caused circumstances have led to the endangered condition of honey bees. Some of the more observable causes include pesticide use and habitat shrinkage as a result of that lovely thing called human greed. In general, our species tends to think everything is about us, living lives of disregard for all other lifeforms on which we have an impact.
An example of this is the agricultural industry, which is a thriving business in America specifically, with almost 45% of U.S. land allocated to agricultural use. Such a massive amount of land must be efficiently maintained by farmers and production companies to produce the highest possible yield, and, therefore, make the greatest profit. Advances in chemical technologies have allowed planters to apply substances to their crops which decrease pest activity, allowing more plants to grow healthily and uninhibited by harmful organisms. Using these pesticides has become the agricultural norm, allowing farmers to more easily regulate such vast acreage and continue to obtain ideal products. Based on a recent study, about 50% of wild bee population decline is linked to pesticide use.
Despite a rather low involvement of honey bees as pollinators for some of the larger scale agricultural crops (e.g. corn), this industry still poses a major threat to the species. Insecticides — a pesticide intended to specifically inhibit insect visitation — spell out disaster for all kinds of insect pollinators. Pesticides can be engineered to specifically target and fend off certain organisms, but they can still cause harm to other unsuspecting ones. Excessive or careless application of these pesticides may result in the drift of chemicals to other land commonly visited by non-targeted pollinators, which could be detrimental to those other species.
The birds and the bees are much more than a title for an awkward pubescent discussion — they are critical contributors to a mutualistic process vital for global nutrition, and basic life as we know it. Human action plays a huge part in the urgency of the situation, but we must take action sooner rather than later if we hope to change anything — saying “save the bees” is a great start, but now we have to make changes in pesticide use and land usage, so that we may continue to be able to call our relationship with this planet mutualistic and not parasitic.